International History and Politics
12 April 2021

On Late Europe: Lateness as Political Perspective for the Old Continent

Is Europe late? And if yes, “late” in what sense? There is a play on words here, a swing between the ordinary meaning of the word (“sorry, I’m late”), and another sense yet to be clarified. Lateness is a political concept that reintroduces the thorny question of time in politics. Given the aesthetic origin of the concept, the question of time is tightly correlated to style, another topic to address in contemporary politics in Europe and beyond. What are the main challenges of the European construction? How does the political concept of lateness take up these challenges? What kind of narrative is “late Europe”? 

Time and contemporary European challenges

Time and style in European politics are the main topics of this inquiry. To think through lateness is one way among others to rekindle a sound debate on the future perspectives of Europe. It is not acceptable that political extremes gain monopole over the future of the continent. The radicalised discourses on the European future are made of pipedreams. Diverse chimeras of ethnic and/or national homogeneity flow in public discourse. Deconstructing these narratives can only succeed if it is supported by consequent narratives about what Europe could look like in the medium term, in one generation or two.

One major warning of the period 2020-2021 has been about how shortsighted we are when it comes to an emergency situation like the ongoing pandemic, or to our most pressing contemporary challenges such as structural racism or global warning. There is a confusion, or even a short-circuit between the moment of the emergency and the time, the longer-term accumulation of the political and historical experience required to face such emergencies. Obviously, emergencies call for immediate action. However, in terms of experience, being stuck in the short term, in the inpatient demand for immediate outcomes, we are almost doomed to live in a permanent “state of emergency”. This has been a recurring symptom since at least the 1990s, as Giorgio Agamben pointed out. There is a tendency to declare a state of emergency or martial law in situations calling for long-term strategies, far beyond the otherwise justified short-term interventions. 

This tendency is certainly not proper to Europe. The articulation between time and politics is a global challenge, as well as the reintroduction of style and taste in political discourse. Nonetheless, the future perspectives of the Old Continent are connected to her ability to frame her place and role within global complexity. Addressing the issue of time and politics in Europe and framing the continent’s place and role in the world are one and the same question. It deals with the different layers of time of historical legacies: the imperialist past of the West, the Eurocentric worldviews and their crimes, the long-term sedimentation of culture and science often instrumentalised and idealized to nourish such worldviews; the legacy of empires that ruled the Eastern peripheries of Europe, how they determined belated nation-building projects, the way they shaped specific senses of belonging to Europe in high contrast with Western perceptions.

These are ‘time zones’: European integration is also about the difficult combination of the different layers of time in act in European diversity. The diversity of time is like any other form of diversity: in itself, it is nothing more than a set of given heterogeneous facts; to build up a value out of given facts is a challenge, a hard task of convergence, a process. If the project of European integration has reached a point of exhaustion, it is also because different time zones across Europe have not been considered seriously enough as political variables. Within integration, there is a gap between the EU-enlargement process and the subsequent degree of cohesion of EU member states. What are the new political perspectives once we have joined the EU? Once we are the EU? The gap is left unfilled or abandoned to the vague illusion of the “end of history”. At the same time, different and sometimes contradictory ideas (and ideals) of Europe bunch into the gap, resulting in flagrant misunderstandings and the fragmentation of the European political space.


The concept of lateness 

Late Europe is meant to be a constructive piece in a debate on new political perspectives, attentive to the many different time zones of the Old Continent in terms of long-term evolutions, medium-term legacies, and short-term challenges. The diversity of the European time deserves a place in the debate on what Europe should or could look like in the near future. Late Europe is hence one contribution among others to a debate to come. It is a way to launch and shape a discussion arbitrarily appropriated by political extremes and still waiting for a wide democratic dialogue, far beyond neutral institutional proposals and other commissioned “white books”. 

What is lateness? It is, originally, an aesthetic concept within critical theory, forged by Theodor W. Adorno. For Adorno, “late style” is an artistic phenomenon, a name for the specificities of the last works of Ludwig van Beethoven (see Essays on Music, pp. 564-582). Close to the end of his musical career, Beethoven, famous in his lifetime, could have composed the greatest symphony of all times, based on his full command of musical conventions, and following the public’s expectations as well. Professionally and socially, the “crowning” of his career was definitely on the agenda. However, as Adorno notes, Beethoven took an unexpected step aside from what was expected and composed a series of difficult pieces that outlined musical conventions instead of merely using them in a conformist fashion. That is late style: a step aside from what is normally accepted, an alternative deepening of cultural legacy. Late works do not turn their backs on tradition, nor do they indulge into a flight forward from legacies: late style remains focused on historical continuities yet proposes a provocative shift in the way it processes what is inherited and achieved.

After Adorno, Edward W. Said tackled the concept of lateness and, in a posthumous collection of essays – a late work itself – he explored different figures of late style in European culture. On Late Style was left unachieved at a stage where discovering a new concept feels like falling in love: the cultural scientist saw signs of late style in quite different fields and genres, enlarging the original concept far beyond musicology and extending it to other works than the last ones in the career of a certain type of famous artists and writers. Said carried on Adorno’s idea by testing the concept in different cases.
Intriguingly, the author of Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism focused almost exclusively on European figures. Said was probably looking for a political figure of performance, in affinity with his Representations of the Intellectual. The chapter on Glenn Gould, the only non-European yet definitely Western figure in the collection, “The Virtuoso as an Intellectual”, points in this direction. Political stakes were tangible in Adorno’s concise essays on late style, Said pursued it further towards the point where political engagement and artistic performance meet. If late works refer to the aesthetic concept, lateness is the political one emerging from it. 

The clear political translation of the aesthetic concept is still missing – and is not necessarily mandatory. I would not give up the intellectual thrill one experiences on the borders of different disciplines such as politics and aesthetics, merely for the sake of signposting. Late style remains in-between, half-way between late works properly speaking, and political lateness. This border region is actually conducive to compose new political narratives. Contemporary politics are teeming with bad quality fiction: fake news, xenophobic narratives and conspiracy theories. In short: cheap kitsch. “Fact-checking” is not enough to fight these political threats. Aesthetics are at stake in them. Good quality “fiction”, i.e. narrative visions of the European construction’s future have become necessary to come up with sound alternatives to the new threats to peace, democracy and education.   

Lateness as a political perspective is such a narrative. It is not an ideology, it does not pretend to any coercive influence on reality – in this regard, it sticks to the genre of the essay as practiced by Adorno and Said. When it comes to sketching new perspectives, the accuracy of a narrative depends on the realism of its time frame – most pieces of public kitsch are betrayed by their lack of a sense of scale, which involves a poor command of time. 


Late Europe: a political perspective

A major European question nowadays is: how to emerge from the shadows without forgetting about the disaster, without minimizing it, and without fleeing forward? Static ignorance, nostalgia and self-confident blindness are among the main political diseases of our time. On the other hand, the reference point of the pre-1945 context should not be a fixed location of history, as if it had ended in Europe following World War II. The Balkan wars of the 1990s showed in the cruellest way how the (American) narrative of the “end of history” is dangerous for Europe in particular, following the post-war illusion that wars and other disastrous events could only happen again outside of the Old Continent. 

A late shift in European politics would be to step aside from the identity-security couple towards style and courage, which has nothing to do with pride. That is usually the shift where constructive history commences.

To emerge from the shadows of the European past without turning our back on its lessons is a challenge combining the multiple layers of time, the different terms in which continuities and turning points make sense, and the present, and the future. The European construction needs more generous and open debates on narratives rather than “European identity” – the trending yet dangerous political concept of our time that tends to monopolize and instrumentalize every assertion related to who and what we are. 

Late Europe is a narrative about how to catch a second wind for the European construction. The Eastern enlargement of the EU (2004-2013 so far) was meant to be this second wind. The integration of different ideas and ideals of Europe, including the unexpected plurality of Eurocentric views did not occur automatically. In a sense, the enlargement has complicated the task of dismantling Eurocentrism, given that the Eurocentric worldview of the former colonizers got blurred, complexified and sometimes seemingly justified by the Eurocentrism of the formerly occupied in the eastern periphery of the continent.

It is not too late – in the ordinary sense – to launch a debate on time, the European time, and its diversity: different time lapses, different agendas and priorities coexist in Europe but are not doomed to regional and continental fragmentation. We will not fight efficiently the identitarian shattering of the European project if we stick to the trending political jargon of identities. There is a time for identity politics, fully justified in contexts of emancipation. Formulating politics differently is a matter of respect for those peoples and emerging nations that do not yet have the choice but to highlight their identities to make injustice visible and obtain political representation. Such respect supposes a better knowledge of the place and role of Europe in a non-Eurocentric world. How could there be new perspectives without the dismantling of the static worldviews of the past that still pop up regularly in European political discourse? Dismantling is a transition, and lateness is about the tempo of political transitions.    

On the borders of aesthetics and politics, lateness is a promising concept that should not be reduced to ‘storytelling’, i.e. a tool of control. There is more to our shared, common narratives than all those sentences we start every day with ‘I’. Late shifts require a good command of the diverse legacies of the past across the continent; a command of European ‘grammars’. Late steps aside from what is normally expected also suppose courage: in times driven by the supply and demand for security, chances are we do not always go for the most courageous options when it comes to critical junctions.

A late shift in European politics would be to step aside from the identity-security couple towards more style and courage, which has nothing to do with pride. That is usually the shift where constructive history commences and where challenges and priorities are renegotiated in more daring ways. “Lateness, writes Said, is being at the end, fully conscious, full of memory, and also very (even preternaturally) aware of the present”. 

Let future political perspectives beam from this late moment of artistic faith in time.       

About the Author

Adam Bence Balazs is a Fellow Researcher at the University of Paris VII and a Lecturer at the University of Budapest. In 2020-2021, he was a Visiting Fellow at the Department of International History and Politics at the Graduate Institute Geneva.

Most recent content